Nobody expected Sony to showcase an EV In Las Vegas. Perhaps we should have.
It’s hard to keep a secret in the automotive world. Everybody now has a camera on their person, once privileged testing locations are now plastered all over the internet, and spy photographers with drones can now surveil even the most locked-down proving grounds. Therefore it came as a huge surprise when Sony unveiled its Vision-S Concept electric vehicle at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this January.
The Japanese were at pains to stress that the vehicle was, for the time being at least, merely a rolling shop window for an impressive suite of Sony sensors, but dig a little deeper and the company’s ambitions are obvious. At CES in 2015, then-CEO Kazuo Hirai made an off-the-cuff remark. “This growing automotive segment has enormous potential,” Hirai told the crowd that January. “We’re aiming to take a leading position.”
Faced with Chinese commoditisation of the consumer sector, many Japanese electronics companies are looking at an expected growth from automotive. In 2018, Sony’s then-new CEO, Kenichiro Yoshida, was asked about future plans for entering the automotive arena, and his response was anything but a shutdown. “It’s probably not something I can deliver during my tenure,” he said, “but I want to begin working on something for the longer term.”
Eighteen months later, the fully formed and suspiciously well-finished Vision-S Concept looks like more than just a toe in the water. However Yoshida was adamant that it’s not a production vehicle and that Sony wouldn’t be stamping its own steel, in the short term at least. Dyson has shuttered its plans for an electric car, and Apple has laid off employees from its Project Titan start-up.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that mobile has been the mega-trend of the last decade,” said Yoshida at CES. “I believe the next mega-trend will be mobility.”
Developed in partnership with Austrian company Magna Steyr, the roots of the Vision-S Concept go deep. As Dyson discovered, going it alone is likely to prove cost-prohibitive, even for a company with Sony’s considerable muscle.
Delve into the tangled web of partnerships and another Asian giant emerges. In 2015, Samsung SDI acquired Magna’s Austrian battery facility, which builds the batteries for BMW’s i3 and is in the process of converting its factory in Göd, Hungary, to add capacity for another 50,000 lithium-ion packs per year. Renault Samsung Motors has been building and selling cars under the Samsung badge for some time. The 1.8-litre engine in the latest Megane RS and Alpine is a Samsung design.
The Koreans also marketed the SM3 Z.E., an enhancement of the Renault Fluence Z.E. and once the best-selling EV in its domestic market.
Samsung, then, has skin in the automotive game, and it, too, was at CES, partnering with BMW on vehicular 5G integration.
Whether Sony is set to share a platform with BMW, or indeed Samsung, isn’t clear, the Germans in particular committing to a modular approach that means each of its chassis from 2021 must be configurable for ICE, PHEV and BEV applications. The Japanese have both the will and the means to enter the EV sector.
Whether they can make a business case to do so profitably remains an issue. For the time being at least, the Vision-S Concept places its sensor tech in the shop window and continues Tesla’s subtle transition of the car to mobile consumer electronics.
The Japanese have both the will and the means to enter the EV sector
Aside from lidar, radar and ultrasonic sensors, the Vision-S Concept leverages Sony’s expertise in charge-coupled devices as seen in the sensor of digital cameras. With at least 10 image sensors around the body, the cameras can not only replace external mirrors but can also engage in driver-recognition functions, monitoring fatigue and unlocking doors when facial recognition software identifies an authorised driver.
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